We do not know whether the idea of publishing the Folio was first conceived by the players or the publishers, but the two groups had to cooperate before the idea became a reality. The publishers had most to gain if the venture succeeded; the players had almost nothing to lose if it failed.
For most of his career, Shakespeare had been a share-holding member of the company that became the King’s Men in 1603 (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men). His surviving fellows would have welcomed the planned edition as a tribute and memorial to one of the company’s most successful playwrights. Furthermore, while relatively few of his plays may have remained in regular performance by the 1620s, the book would remind the public that many once-popular plays were still available to be revived on demand.
There was also money to be made—though not enough to suggest that the players’ main motive was financial. Publishers sometimes negotiated contracts resembling royalty agreements among themselves, but when they bought “copy” from non-members of the Stationers’ Company, they usually purchased it outright. For the use of their manuscripts by the printer of the Folio, the players would have received only a single payment that is unlikely to have exceeded 50 pounds and may well have been less.
The principal publishers, Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard, would have hoped to make a considerably larger profit, but the venture was a risky one. As well as paying for the use of the play house manuscripts, they needed either to buy or to lease the publishing rights to the plays already in print.
They also had to decide how many copies of the book to print, taking into account the fixed cost of acquiring rights to the plays. If too few copies were printed, the book might fail to sell because it was overpriced; if too many were printed, the publishers might not sell enough copies to recover their costs. The ideal size of the edition could only be guessed, because there was no real precedent. The fact that the book was reprinted after only nine years suggests a relatively small edition—probably no more than 750 copies, and perhaps fewer.
Continue ... How Much Did It Cost?
Excerpted and adapted from Peter W. M. Blayney, The First Folio of Shakespeare, © Folger Library Publications, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1991